Sometime around the day when “the music died,” on February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing him, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, depending on whom you talk to, America’s innocence died too.
With the Cuban missile crisis and the escalating conflict in Vietnam looming on the horizon, the youth caught in the crosshairs of the world’s madness needed somebody to say something more meaningful than “Be my baby,” or “Da do run run.”
If you want to believe the Happy Days version of when “America was great again,” that’s your business. Whether the dawn of the ’60s with its rampant racism, communist paranoia and all-pervading fear of a nuclear nightmare “was a more innocent time,” is up for debate.
On the other hand, we’re currently over our heads in corruption and a willful ignorance that is beyond anything we’ve previously imagined. But there may be hope for salvation. Rock ‘n’ roll just might, once more, save our collective sorry asses.
That’s a tall job for anybody. Many an artist, driven by noble causes, has taken the stage in hopes of turning the tides of darkness. If Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger leading socially-minded sing alongs, and Mahalia Jackson roaring “We Shall Overcome” couldn’t get these greed-driven, racist knuckleheads to locate their brains and hearts, what chance did a pair of baby boomer smart alecks like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, have?
There certainly have been plenty others: everyone from John Lennon to Neil Young, Bob Marley and Steve Earle have all wielded “three chords and the truth” as Pete Seeger once put it, trying to change the world.
But playing “message music” is a tricky business that all too often becomes heavy handed and pompous. As we’ve seen for generations, it only works if someone is actually willing to listen to the message. It also helps if you can dance to it.
Like Sly & the Family Stone, whose funky sermons, “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Everybody Is A Star,” and “Everyday People” once inspired us to drop our prejudices and come together to party, Midnight Oil’s radical rock has helped put a positive spin on the grim times since the late ’70s.
So, at the risk of ridicule, or a good sock on the chin, I asked the band’s guitarist/keyboardist and songwriter Jim “Seamus” Moginie if the Oils have returned now to “save the world?”
“Partly yes,” he told me.
“The world has swung so far to the right since we split in 2002. The right has learnt successfully how to govern, blocking legislation like crazy whilst in opposition and then be totally non-transparent and arrogant in power. If anything, we’re part of the kick back against tyranny. Our lyrics are still relevant. Whether it’s nuclear annihilation, environment or the plight of the indigenous, the same things are still happening 30 years later. Go figure. And also partly because we still like playing together.”
“Midnight Oil is back and better than ever,” said Gayle Austin, host of the Sydney-based program Curved Radio. “They’re just as passionate and committed to making a difference to the planet in a very, very rock and roll way. They’ve returned just at the right time, and it shows because they’re selling out concerts around the world. They are authentic, committed guys who really rock and dance and inspire and give five hundred percent on stage. Quite often they play for a couple hours straight. Their fans are fanatical!”
Austin recently attended a free concert that lasted two hours at the Greenpeace warehouse in a suburb outside of Sydney. “Before going on tour, they must have rehearsed their entire back catalogue because each show is different. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. They also put on a couple of other spontaneous concerts in small pubs they used to play in when they first started. They are the real deal!”
It seems like no coincidence that the Oils have regrouped at a time of unprecedented chaos and greed in the world.
Much has happened during the interim since Peter Garrett moved from the stage to the political arena, first running for the Australian Senate as an advocate for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s, to his Parliament appointment as the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and Arts in 2007, and then becoming the Minister of Education in 2010.
“After the split [Oils’ drummer] Rob [Hirst] myself and [Violent Femmes bassist] Brian Ritchie formed a surf band called the Break and did two albums and some touring,” Moginie recalled. “We all got involved in a myriad of projects, playing in orchestras, blues, Irish music, soundtracks, solo albums and collaborations. [Bassist] Bones [a.k.a. Wayne Hillman] moved to Nashville and played in bands and on sessions. So, when Pete gave the word, the tools were still sharp. We did some rehearsals with the full band and it felt and sounded fresh as a daisy. So that’s why we’re here. And it seems there’s still an audience for us.”
Gone 15 years, Midnight Oil might have temporarily slipped off your radar screen, so let’s take a minute and dig through their sprawling songbag, amongst obscure chestnuts and long-standing evergreens, like 1987’s “Beds Are Burning” (which sold over six million copies) and 1990’s “Blue Sky Mine,” which following the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, in 1989, became a potent protest anthem which the band performed on a flatbed truck outside the oil company’s offices in Manhattan, temporarily halting traffic and drawing attention to the ecological crises.
1983’s rocking “Read About It” still perfectly reflects how desensitized and lethargic we remain all these years later to yet “another incredible scene,” we see and hear of each day, whether on Facebook or TV. “The rich get richer and the poor get the picture,” Garrett sings over a hyper-kinetic rhythm driven by a hammered cow bell and chiming 12-strings.
Featuring a Link Wray-style reverb-drenched rumbling guitar, “Put Down that Weapon” (1987) seems even more pertinent today with lines like, “Put down that weapon or we’ll all be gone” and “It happens to be an emergency.” The lyrics could be describing today’s news about Trump and Kim Jong-un’s sabre rattling over a potential nuclear war.
1993’s “My Country” put a twist on that old redneck slogan from the ’60s: “My country right or wrong, my country oh so strong, my country’s going wrong, my country right or wrong,” Garrett sings in raspy whisper over Moginie’s piano before the song breaks into a hard cowbell/bass-driven funk with sizzling, snarling guitars.
Watching the video to their second single, 1983’s “The Power and the Passion” flashing images of money, new BMW’s, and fast food, still makes us question how do we manage to move beyond this state of materialism that is destroying the planet while ultimately making us dull, predictable beings?
Once more, Jim Moginie fields that nagging question for us: “What’s lacking on the planet is an apathy to the powerful business interests that get their hands on the political levers via lobbyists and the appointment to the boards of ex-politicos with contacts in the corridors of power,” he says.
“The answer is one word—community. People with a common cause can speak out, which can alter the whole landscape. Evil proliferates when good people do nothing. Dullness comes in many ways. There’s the fantasy, and then there’s the reality, as [the late/great record producer] Jim Dickinson once wisely said. People are choosing to live in fantasy, a Matrix type of alternate reality. We are connected to the whole world while not being present in our own locality. Then closing borders while not questioning. It’s like falling asleep in front of CNN one day and wake up the next hypnotized, and a war mongering homophobe.”
The yearning ballad “Ships of Freedom,” a personal fave, takes the point of view of refugees in the south China Seas. Over Moginie’s aching, melodic keyboards, Garrett begs the question “can you imagine the first taste of freedom?” This song seems even more relevant now in light of the tragedy in Syria, and North Africans desperately fleeing their homes, rafting across the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of finding a better life in Europe.
Midnight Oil probably plays less typical love songs than most groups. Their romantic ideals tend to be reserved for heroic women like Truganini, a Tasmanian Aborigine who, after suffering sexual abuse and the murder of her family and fiancé at the hands of greedy timber-cutters gutting her beloved homeland, turned outlaw, formed a gang and gallantly avenged the encroaching settlers, while helping preserve her dwindling indigenous community through courage and philanthropic acts.
With lyrics inspired by the stunning story of “Truganini,” the groovin’ bluesy song, which features a wailing harmonica and a killer bass line, appeared on their 1993 release Earth and Sun and Moon.
In 1986, the Oils toured with the Aboriginal group, the Warumpi Band, performing their healing anthem of equality and brotherhood, “Blackfella/Whitefella” across Australia, from major cities, to desert locales. The band’s rare cover songs have also included a chugging great cover of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” in which Garrett turned the lyric about a young couple stifled by economics and a grim future into an inclusive message, singing “everybody there’s a better life for me and you.”
In 1990, the Oils recorded the Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat,” a song about a homeless wino named August West who wanders the piers just barely managing to stay above the ground. While the song offers a sympathetic view of the homeless and unwanted, it was an excellent vehicle for the band’s double guitar interplay of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey.
“Well I think we realized early on that our strengths weren’t to write love songs,” Moginie explained.
“That was well covered by others. People like the Clash, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Skyhooks, Cold Chisel were writing about real life, the latter two with a proudly Australian bent. They made us realize that songs could be about something, not be-bop-alula or soppy commercial fodder, but inspirational, and that could connect us to a potential audience who wanted something with a bit of flesh and blood and not saccharine.”
“Perhaps it’s also the fact we are over-educated lefties who grew up in a time of Whitlam, [Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st prime minister] a time when the country suddenly woke up from our ’50s-style past, riding on the sheep’s back of pastoralism. We got out of Vietnam, got free university education, the start of land rights for our indigenous people, women’s rights too, and went into a confident and idealistic growth period. It all ended in tears but it was a start of a fairer country, and I think that idea is part of who we are as people, dare I say.
“But, yes cover songs are good to play, ‘Wharf Rat’ was a challenge because we never grew up with the Dead in Australia. We saw them playing to a huge crowd in the early ’90s and could relate to their amazing connection with their audience. We did our own thing with the song, including that trippy live-in-the-studio ending.”
As Seamus pointed out, the Oils have also been known to play Utopia’s “Rape of The Young,” “Dancing the Night Away” by the Motors and a smoldering version “Shaking All Over” inspired by the Who’s Live At Leeds, which they often end their sets with.
Beginning in April with an un-announced pub gig in Sydney, Midnight Oil’s “Great Circle” world tour will take them to Brazil, before coming to North America, where they will play Webster Hall on May 13 and May 14, before flying off to Europe and New Zealand and finally returning to Australia in November.
Not surprisingly, a flash flood of releases is planned, including three new box sets—one containing all of the band’s LP’s and EP’s, while the second gathers all their CD’s and videos, and the third project, aptly titled The Overflow Tank, a new four-CD/eight-DVD collection of previously unreleased and rarities.